As one of the earlier East Coast members of the “farm to table” revolution and a regular amongst the “best of” lists in various local and regional publications dinner at L’Espalier was the easiest dining choice I made in all of Boston. Of course I’d heard the rumors that Frank McClelland was spending less and less time overseeing the operations of his flagship restaurant since migrating near the Mandarin Oriental Hotel but under the well trained hand of Shane O’Neill I had little doubt the of the kitchen’s capabilities and given the local sourcing of many of its ingredients from McClelland’s organic Apple Street Farm I had no reason to doubt that no matter who was cooking on the night of my meal the food ‘should’ be delicious….and of course a little extra assurance by literally dining in the kitchen didn’t hurt either. Having planned for this to be my longest, most elaborate, and most expensive meal during my trip the necessary contacts were made through Daria Caritano approximately two months in advance and with my time of arrival set to be 7:00pm everything went according to plan as I entered the lobby at five minutes to seven.
With greetings offered by a pair of capped doormen and my reservation confirmed my first stop at L’Espalier was the elevator to the main dining room floor – a ride during which I’d clearly been pronounced to the hostess at the top of the lift as I was greeted by name and my bags were checked before the doors had even fully opened. With the maître d’hôtel soon to arrive and again all smiles and pleasantries I was introduced to at least fifteen members of the staff en route to (and through) the kitchen where I would finally land at a large four-top behind a glass window overlooking the entirety of the kitchen. Seated on a comfortable high stool with padded lumbar support I was next greeted by Chef O’Neill and encouraged to “make yourself comfortable – we’ve got a lot of great dishes planned for you tonight” and with that the maître d’ suggested I remove my coat “because it gets pretty warm” and instructed me on the use of my own private air conditioner.
With the kitchen moving at a frenetic yet focused pace due to two large graduation parties and a rehearsal dinner the next man to greet me would be Shah – for all intents and purposes my own personal server for the evening. A quiet yet knowledgeable man whose tenure at the restaurant dated back to its prior location the only two decisions of the evening would arrive quickly – the first being whether I’d prefer still or sparkling water and the second being the selection of a cocktail or wine to go with my meal. Left with the extensive wine list and slightly less substantial cocktail menu to decide for a moment while my water was fetched I must note that although I generally do not drink the cocktail menu at L’Espalier proved to be one of the most intriguing I’d seen in some time and in the end it was not a matter of deciding whether I wanted one of the $15 beverages but rather which – a decision Shah made easy on me when he affirmed one of the three I’d considered to be his favorite.
With the decisions part of the night taken care of within 10 minutes of seating I was once again left by myself to watch the action of the kitchen and all its chefs, dynamics, dramas, lectures, ebbs and flows – an experience not unlike that in many cooking shows yet vastly more real and interactive as home life was discussed, skills were honed, jokes were made, and in one case a licked spoon re-entering a sauce pan resulted in an entire course being restarted (and extra cleaning duties at shift’s end for the offending party) – to say the least it was an experience like no other and everything that anyone ate at L’Espalier during my three hour meal was mine to observe, question, and enjoy.
With the kitchen (and air conditioner) humming the first item to arrive at my table was in fact not my cocktail but rather a pair of canapés – one a creamy goat cheese gougere and the other a creamy slice of Foie Gras terrine with cherry compote served on a porcelain spoon – both excellent and a sweet/savory pairing that served their purpose admirably to awaken the palate.
With canapés consumed and amuses en route Shah would arrive next with my “Red Sidecar” shaken and poured tableside featuring Myers Dark Rum, Cognac, Pomegranate, and Fresh Orange. Admittedly a lightweight when it comes to alcohol but generally an admirer of rum based drinks when I do opt to imbibe this drink was right up my alley with a lot of sweetness included a sugared rim to balance the woody aromatic blend of cognac and rum.
Arriving shortly after the cocktail and announced as my amuse bouche of the evening Copper River Salmon Crudo with crème fraiche, buckwheat crumble, and caper “caviar” would prove to be not only very texturally compelling, but also quite interesting in replicating the traditional smoked salmon and caviar experience without using eggs or a smoker at all.
Having heard great things about the bread service at L’Espalier I would not be let down when Shah arrived next at my table with a basket of warm house made bread nine slices deep paired with a round of sweet butter with sea salt. With the nightly options consisting of Rosemary Focaccia, Pretzel Roll, Multigrain Wheat, and Fig it was with much restraint that I limited my intake of bread between courses, though I will fully admit to taking only a bite or two of the multigrain while finishing each of the other options and requesting another couple slices of the fig to accompany the selections served with the cheese board later.
Now well settled in and watching the kitchen produce forty orders of sweetbreads for one of the parties while the pastry team sliced an enormous white cake crafted for the rehearsal the tasting menu proper would begin with something I more or less expected considering the city I was visiting – an oyster. Titled “Misty Point Oyster, mignonette, North American Caviar” this relatively straight forward preparation was served shucked from the shell in an elegant double glass bowl with a touch of liquid nitrogen doing double duty as temperature control and special effects. With the oyster itself smooth and surprisingly sweet and the mignonette flavors fashioned by the combination of the foam and the jus this tasty bite went down smoothly with the caviar adding a touch more brine and texture.
With courses arriving on average at ten minute intervals and flawless timing and execution the rule throughout the evening my second course would be one of the most memorable of the night both for its wonderful flavor and for its relative simplicity. Titled Apple Street Farm egg mousse with white sturgeon caviar and featuring a creamy sweetened pudding rife with egg yolk juxtaposed against briny bubbles of caviar it was like Keller’s Oysters and Pearls minus the oyster plus more cream.
Moving through the list of my favorite ingredients the third item of the evening was Butter Poached Main lobster with garlic emulsion, English peas, and ham consommé – a dish prepared a la minute by O’Neill as the team prepared twelve menu lobster courses for one of the parties and in my case pairing a snappy half tail simply with sweet shucked peas, mellow yet heady garlic, and the slightest essence of smoky ham.
Course four would prove to be my favorite of the night and having the opportunity to watch the sous-chef break down six or seven whole lobes of foie gras over the course of my meal I gained a whole new respect for the time and skill needed to make the ingredient shine. This time the same preparation as on the nightly menu, Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with almond cake, salted caramel and green almond milk foam was one of the best seared Foie Gras preps I’ve had in recent memory with the supple organ meet creamy on the inside and caramelized on the exterior pairing perfectly with the almond sponge and dehydrated nut butter on the plate’s left. Generally preferring my liver sweet to savory the addition of the airy nuanced almond foam and smears of sticky caramel worked beautifully for me, though I will note that for some this dish may have proven “too sweet” for so early in the meal because in all reality it undeniably could’ve been served as dessert and I’d not have complained one bit.
Course five would be another dish that seemed somewhat oddly placed as it functioned almost as an early meal palate cleanser prior to beginning the heftier proteins but having enjoyed meals at places like Alinea and VOLT where the savory sweet savory sweet flow is seamlessly incorporated into the progression of the meal the only problem with “Buffalo milk panna cotta with Tabasco tomato caviar/Ricotta crumble/olive oil gelee, matcha crumble and eucalyptus sorbet, Strawberry watermelon cocktail with strawberry sphere” was that there was simply too much going on for a single plate even if the “plate” was in fact three distinct entities. Beginning first with the ice cream as it was the most likely to melt I will note that this singular fraction of a dish was the only failure of the night at L’Espalier – too minty, too grassy, too potent. Moving next to the Panna Cotta – a huge swing in the other direction – this deconstructed caprese was flawless and tinged with a bit of heat that brought everything together. Finally, the cocktail was molecular gastronomy personified with the fizzy strawberry layer floating atop a thicker watermelon broth containing an “egg” filled with creamy strawberry foam.
With one of the parties wrapping up it was around this time that the kitchen started to slow down a bit and the chefs became more conversant discussing their techniques, sourcing, and concepts while inviting questions. For the sixth course I was served “Georges Bank Halibut with Prince Edward Island Mussels, Parmesan Gnocchi, English peas, and Truffled egg yolk” – an absolutely lovely dish with a portion-size big enough to constitute a main at many a fine dining establishments. With the fish itself faultlessly prepared and featuring a golden sear over-top moist flesh and the hand formed gnocchis nearly the same texture as the mussels this base of this dish was strong with the flavors of the sea while the whole peas, carrots, and pea puree formed a sweet vegetal note mellowed by notes of truffle.
Next up the kitchen would bring the funk and the heat in the form of Veal Sweetbreads, confit ox tongue, pickled shimeji mushroom, and horseradish cream – sort of an upscale charcuterie board with the creamy sweetbreads mildly gamey and the thin terrine of tongue entirely so. Served on a plate that looked like weaved glass and paired with pickled mushrooms and smooth yet spicy horseradish it was not my favorite sweetbread plate of all time, but it was well composed and soundly executed.
With duck always a must order when available my next course would feature Roasted Lola Duck with sweet onion puree, Radishes, and Spring Ramps. Plated simply with duck and jus at one side and smooth puree, bitter radish, and melting ramps at each other this was a no tricks/no gimmicks sort of dish and with the duck clearly aged, approximately 12-14 days in house according to O’Neill, it was exemplary with golden skin crackling to give way to supple rosy flesh – a contender for top five duck dishes I’ve ever enjoyed.
Pronounced as my final savory, course nine of the evening arrived sizzling from roaster after a quick sear on the grill. Titled Herb crusted tenderloin of lamb, green asparagus, and potato with butter truffle emulsion this aromatic presentation was perhaps four ounces of supple loin crusted with an amalgam of spices including but not limited to chives, cumin, and sage paired with a smear of curry, two unique purees both imbued with butter and truffle, plus a small pile of wilted Swiss chard.
With my cheese course announced to arrive next I was a bit surprised (and so was Shah) when a palate cleanser arrived in its stead – an apparent “mix up” from the pastry team, but when the biggest mistake of the evening entails an extra dessert how can I complain? Described as Mixed summer berries, strawberry sorbet, apricot gelee, yogurt foam, and fruit leather “party favor” the young female pastry chef who delivered this suggested I break the leather over the bowl and on doing so the parfait was completed with a topping of house made granola. Tart and tangy but smooth and light this was one of the better palate cleansers I’ve had in recent memory and a glimpse ahead to the welcomed whimsy displayed by the pastry half of the kitchen.
Moving on to the previously promised cheese course (and joking with the pastry team that I’d “obviously need another palate cleanser after the cheeses”) it was plain to see that L’Espalier takes their cheeses seriously as the selection of seven was delivered with a detailed listing of thirty available in house for purchase. Amongst my “Selection Grand Fromage” the options chosen for me by the house included Menage from Carr Valley Cheese, Coupole from Vermont butter and Cheese Creamery, Caccio di bosco from Tuscany, Hoch Ybrig from Zurich, Robiola la Rustica, Epoisse de Bourgogne from Burgundy, and Caveman blue from Rogue Creamery Oregon. A great selection of cheeses ranging from the nutty three-animal blend of Menage to the sharp white truffle tinged flavor of Caccio di Bosco all the way to a stunning briny Epoisse the plate was made all the better by an accoutrement tray of apricots, candied walnuts, pine nut honey, raisin walnut bread and whole wheat slices.
With the savory half of the kitchen now beginning their clean-up for the evening Jiho Kim would arrive with my next course and an unnecessary apology for the “mix-up” with the first palate cleanser declaring the next dish a “palate re-cleanser” of Liquid nitrogen panna cotta with raspberry jus, mango sorbet, and coconut powder. Again with a focus on tart meets tangy but smoothing things our with the slightly savory coconut powder I enjoyed this dishes textural variation a great deal even though at first the nitrogen frozen panna cotta was so cold it actually adhered to my tongue and cheeks before starting to melt.
Beginning the proper desserts I will admit that I’d contacted the restaurant in advance and told them I didn’t want to miss out on two of Joho’s current main menu options (not generally part of the Kitchen Table experience) and graciously they agreed to do both – the first amongst the ten best desserts I’ve ever eaten. Titled “Chocolate banana macadamia bread pudding, crème anglaise; milk chocolate sorbet” and served with with Buddha’s Hand Gelee and milk foam this tall cylinder was presented tableside first and then, with the young female pastry chef running to grab a “bigger knife for more drama,” Shah chopped through the outer edge releasing a stream of crème anglaise laden with hot banana pudding, sweet smooth chocolate, foams, and hard malted milk balls. Texturally complicated and entirely delicious I’d recommend anyone visiting L’Espalier to request this dish in advance.
For my final proper course of the meal, number fourteen, a trio of desserts were offered up on a single composed dish titled “Milk chocolate caramel soufflé, caramel financier, grapefruit gel; Gianduja ice cream” and while the soufflé was light, tasty, and beautifully accented by the salty caramel sauce and the Ice cream was like frozen whipped nutella, the part I couldn’t stop thinking about for the rest of my trip to Boston was that Financier – a delicate little crumb cake that tasted as though the pastry team had figured out how to make bread with nothing but sticky caramel.
With the my plates cleared the mignardises would begin first with a show from Shah in the form of liquid nitrogen quenelles of Orange and lychee Ice creams made tableside. With each tart and tangy dollop causing me to billow a puff of smoke through my nose I will admit that even as it becomes more and more common to use liquid nitrogen tableside I still think it is fun and if you can make it tasty and interactive, why not?
For the final bites at my table a plate of mignardises would arrive featuring a yuzu marshmallow, almond coconut cookie, guava pate de fruit, and coffee and Prosecco chocolates – all good, but none the quality of that financier.
After a chat with the pastry chefs, Shah, and Chef O’Neill about the high points and low points of the meal and a quick tour of the rest of the restaurant (I’d spent nearly three hours there and had never even seen the dining room) which was now empty save for two tables lingering over coffee and dessert I settled the bill and collected a copy of the menu as well as my belongings before making my way back to the elevator in the lobby. Greeted once again by the maitre d’ I was thanked for my patronage and offered a 20% off card for any future lunches at L’Espalier along with a buttery coconut macaron I’d enjoy on the cab ride home.
Having now rambled on at length about the experience I can say without a doubt the food was good and sometimes beyond reproach – particularly the bread pudding, the duck, and the foie gras; all three of which rank amongst my top five ‘must order’ menu items anywhere – and while perhaps not as innovative or “wowing” as places like The French Laundry, Alinea, or Per Se at a comparable price point, the ability to literally sit in the kitchen and interact with the chefs at such a level is something I don’t really feel you can put a price tag on. Was the Chef’s Table at L’Espalier the most amazing of my life? No. Was the meal even the best food in Boston? Close, but not quite. Was it memorable and worth every penny? You bet – and I’d do it again.